While indie rock stalwarts the National emerged from Brooklyn in the early 2000s amid a garage rock revival that included bands like the Strokes, the Walkmen, and, in the U.K., the Libertines, they distinguished themselves by drawing from a wider set of influences. Merging elements of alternative country-rock, Americana, and chamber pop as well as post-punk into their moody, crafted indie rock, their earliest albums won a dedicated fan base and critical praise before they made an impact on the charts with their fourth LP, 2007′s Boxer. It marked a gradual shift away from some of their more rustic influences as they embraced a more expansive, orchestral sound behind the literate lyrics and brooding vocals of frontman Matt Berninger. With 2010′s High Violet, the National settled into an evocative blend of electronic and acoustic instruments that accentuated the group’s introspective tendencies. High Violet proved to be a commercial breakthrough as well as an artistic progression: it debuted at number three on Billboard’s Top 200. From that point forward, the National were at the vanguard of adult-oriented indie rock, digging deeper into their idiosyncrasies on the subsequent Trouble Will Find Me and Sleep Well Beast, eventually earning the attention of Taylor Swift, who collaborated with Aaron Dessner on her 2020 albums Folklore and Evermore. The Swift connection brought the National to a broader audience who welcomed their next album, 2023′s First Two Pages of Frankenstein and its swift sequel Laugh Track.
Founded by lead vocalist Matt Berninger, Aaron Dessner (guitar, bass), and brothers Scott Devendorf (bass, guitar) and Bryan Devendorf (drums) in 1999, the National emerged from Cincinnati, Ohio garage punk band Nancy. Consisting of Berninger, Scott Devendorf, Mike Brewer, Casey Reas, and Jeff Salem, Nancy released the album Ruther 3429 before disbanding when members including Berninger and Devendorf relocated to Brooklyn, New York. Once there, the two former graphic design students joined forces with Cincinnati native and Columbia University graduate Aaron Dessner and Scott’s brother Bryan Devendorf. The quartet secured a weekly residency at Manhattan’s Luna Lounge and went to work on their debut album. The National saw release in 2001 on Brassland Records, an independent label founded by Aaron Dessner and his twin brother Bryce, a Yale graduate with a Master’s degree in music. Bryce soon joined the group on guitar, solidifying a lineup that would remain intact through their rise to mainstream success.
Also released on Brassland, the band’s sophomore LP, 2003′s Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers, reunited the National with producer Nick Lloyd. It stuck with their debut’s sophisticated mix of country-influenced rock and plaintive chamber pop. The album also introduced longtime collaborator Padma Newsome, who contributed violin, viola, and string arrangements. The quintet returned two years later with Alligator, which also featured strings by Newsome as well as piano and organ by Newsome and Lloyd. It marked their debut on the Beggars Banquet label. Their fourth full-length, Boxer, proved a commercial breakthrough in 2007. Featuring expanded instrumentation, including woodwinds and brass, keyboards by Thomas Bartlett (Doveman), and production by the band and Peter Katis, it reached number 68 on the Billboard 200. Boxer charted higher in countries including but not limited to the U.K., New Zealand, and Finland. A year later, they issued The Virginia EP, a collection of unreleased songs, B-sides, demos, and live recordings.
The National signed with 4AD for their fifth studio LP, High Violet. Released in 2010, it embraced the more cinematic sound of Boxer with guests that included not only returning collaborators Newsome and Bartlett, but such names as Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, Nadia Sirota, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, and Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry. High Violet landed in the Top Three in the U.S., Canada, and a handful of European countries, and reached number five in the U.K. They had similar chart placements with 2013′s Trouble Will Find Me, which also featured Bartlett, Muhly, Parry, and Stevens alongside over a dozen other instrumentalists. Sharon Van Etten, Nona Marie Invie, and St. Vincent’s Annie Clark sang on the record. It was recognized with a Grammy nomination in the alternative album category. Capturing a six-hour live performance of the same song, “Sorrow,” at MoMA PS1 in May of 2013, the nine-LP box set Lot of Sorrow followed in 2015.
Around that time, members of the National pursued side projects — together and separately — including Pfarmers, a collaboration between Bryan Devendorf, Menomena’s Danny Seim, and trombonist Dave Nelson (David Byrne and St. Vincent). The avant indie rock trio released Gunnera in mid-2015. Later that year, Berninger issued Return to the Moon as half of the indie rock duo EL VY with multi-instrumentalist Brent Knopf (Menomena, Ramona Falls). In early 2016, Bryan and Scott Devendorf joined Beirut’s Ben Lanz in the experimental rock outfit LNZNDRF. They released their self-titled album on 4AD, following it with the EP Green Roses in August, the same month Pfarmers released their follow-up, Our Puram. The National then reconvened in the studio.
Produced again by the band with help from Katis, the National’s third studio album for 4AD and seventh overall, 2017′s Sleep Well Beast, continued a trend toward vaster soundscapes. It went to number two in the U.S. and topped the charts in Canada, Ireland, and the U.K. Sleep Well Beast also won the National a Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Album in early 2018. Boxer: Live in Brussels saw release later in 2018.
The National returned in May 2019 with their eighth studio album, I Am Easy to Find. Inspired by a collaboration with filmmaker Mike Mills, the album reached number one on the U.S. Top Rock Albums chart and also showcased cameos by a number of female vocalists, including Gail Ann Dorsey, Eve Owen, and Sharon Van Etten. Meanwhile, Aaron Dessner’s high profile production efforts for Taylor Swift led to the National appearing on “Coney Island” from Swift’s 2020 album Evermore. After contributing a cover of INXS’ “Never Tear Us Apart” to the bushfire relief charity album Songs for Australia, the band returned in 2021 with the original song “Somebody Desperate” for the Cyrano soundtrack. Another standalone single, the Bon Iver collaboration “Weird Goodbyes,” appeared in 2022, then the National launched the cycle for their ninth album First Two Pages of Frankenstein with the release of the single “Tropical Morning News” in January 2023. A gentle, meditative album featuring cameos by Sufjan Stevens and Phoebe Bridgers, First Two Pages of Frankenstein was released in April 2023. After wrapping up the North American supporting tour for Frankenstein, the band quickly wrapped up Laugh Track, an album consisting of leftover material from the Frankenstein sessions along with a handful of newly-written tunes. Featuring camoeos from Bridgers, Bon Iver and Rosanne Cash, Laugh Track appeared without notice in September 2023. ~ Marcy Donelson